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The National Football League’s Blind Side: Why the League’s Efforts to End Violence Against Women Should Be Aimed at Personnel As Well As Players

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By: Rachel Insalaco*


The National Football League (NFL) has long been plagued by assertions that it does not adequately respond to accusations against its members of violence against women.[1]  This criticism reached a critical mass in 2014 in the wake of highly-publicized acts of violence by three different players: Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson.[2]  Public outcry levied at the incidents themselves, and specifically how Rice’s punishment was handled by the NFL, led league Commissioner Roger Goodell to implement a new Personal Conduct Policy.[3]

From the beginning, the implementation of the new Personal Conduct Policy was derided as a public relations stunt, “aimed not at reshaping the league’s approach to or attitude toward domestic violence but at answering the outcry.”[4]  An investigation published on September 23, 2019 bolstered this perspective by noting the NFL’s consistent hiring of coaches and personnel with easily discoverable histories of violence against women.[5]  These coaches and other personnel have consistently faced less stringent pre-employment scrutiny than players; therefore, the NFL once again must face the question of whether its public stance against domestic violence amounts to anything more than a “public relations campaign.”[6]

The History Behind the NFL’s New Personal Conduct Policy

In 2014, then-star running back for the Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice was arrested for simple assault after he beat his fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an elevator in Atlantic City.[7]  The NFL initially suspended Rice for two games following the incident.[8]  In response to criticism that Rice’s punishment was too lenient, Goodell instituted a new Personal Conduct Policy for the league.[9]  Days later, Rice was additionally punished under the new policy as a result of TMZ releasing video footage of his assault on Palmer.[10]  He was released by the Ravens and indefinitely suspended by the NFL.[11]  Although this punishment violated the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement by punishing Rice twice for the same incident and was therefore eventually appealed and overturned, he never played professional football again.[12]

This new Personal Conduct Policy sought to correct failures in the old version by clearly delineating procedures for investigating off-field misconduct and any punishment for such infractions.[13]  It instituted the NFL’s version of due process, as well as a conduct committee and disciplinary officer, in an apparent bid to bolster the guidelines for player misconduct and strengthen the availability of resources for both the offenders and their victims.[14]  The policy applies to “players under contract; all rookie players selected in the NFL college draft and all undrafted rookie players, unsigned veterans who were under contract in the prior League Year; and other prospective players once they commence negotiations with a club concerning employment.”[15]  Despite its seemingly limited application to players only, the introduction to the policy broadly maintains that “[e]veryone who is part of the league must refrain from ‘conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in’ the NFL… [including] coaches, players, other team employees, game officials, and employees of the league office, NFL Films, NFL Network, or any other NFL business.”[16]

The NFL’s Inconsistent Enforcement of Its Personal Conduct Policy

NFL teams have recently increased accountability for players accused of violence against women, at least on the surface.[17]  For instance, the New England Patriots released wide receiver Antonio Brown a mere ten days after his former trainer filed a civil lawsuit against him for rape and sexual assault.[18]  The Kansas City Chiefs similarly released running back Kareem Hunt in November 2018 after video footage surfaced of him attacking a young woman.[19]  Additionally, the NFL now conducts criminal background checks on all prospects who are invited to the league’s annual draft combine.[20]

This increased accountability, however, has not spread to NFL coaches and other league personnel.[21]  New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged in February 2019 with solicitation of prostitution in connection with a prostitution ring in Jupiter, Florida.[22]  Kraft is still an owner of the Patriots today and has not been punished by the NFL, presumably while they wait for a decision in the lawsuit against him.[23]  However, the league’s Personal Conduct Policy authorizes punishment before the rendering of a judgment in a criminal case, and this power has frequently been used to punish players.[24]  For instance, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and Kareem Hunt all received NFL suspensions for misconduct despite not having been criminally charged.[25]

Further, USA Today’s investigation unveiled four coaches who had been hired by NFL teams despite allegations of violence against women in their pasts.[26]  Rick Slate, the strength and conditioning assistant for the Oakland Raiders, had been the subject of at least five restraining orders and was arrested for domestic disputes three times before joining the team.[27]  Two different former coaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had been accused of domestic violence, as well.[28]  Skyler Fulton, the team’s former offensive assistant and wide receivers’ coach, was arrested in 2010 for a domestic violence incident during which he allegedly grabbed a woman’s throat and threw her to the ground.[29]  Paul Spicer, the team’s former assistant defensive line coach, had two restraining orders filed against him in 2005 and 2008 while he was a player for the Jacksonville Jaguars.[30]  Though neither man still coaches for Tampa Bay, they were not fired from the team, nor did they face discipline following the respective incidents; each left voluntarily following the departure of head coach Dirk Koetter, and both still coach football at the collegiate level.[31]  Finally, Mark Collins, the linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was on the receiving end of a restraining order in 2018 because he allegedly caused a woman working for the team to fear for her safety.[32]


In each of the aforementioned cases, the charges against the men were dropped and the orders of protection were withdrawn.[33]  Nonetheless, the fact that the NFL either was unaware of or disregarded such serious incidents in its coaches’ backgrounds is concerning, especially given the ease with which USA Today was able to obtain the information.[34]  Despite Commissioner Goodell’s promise to “do more” in the face of violence against women following the Ray Rice incident, the league has sidestepped difficult questions about the backgrounds of its coaches and instead handed off the issue to the individual teams.[35]  Perhaps the best way for the NFL to paint its efforts against domestic violence as more than a mere public relations stunt is to begin applying its Personal Conduct Policy to its personnel as well as its players.[36]


*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2021, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

[1] See Terence Moore, NFL Still Clueless When It Comes To Players’ Abuse of Women, Forbes (Dec. 1, 2018), (stating that NFL learned nothing from “Ray Rice fiasco” and directing those upset with league to “rip [it] over its ongoing hypocrisy involving players who have no problem using UFC moves against women”).

[2] For a further discussion about the violent incident involving Ray Rice, see infra notes 7-12 and accompanying text. For a further discussion about the violent incident involving Adrian Peterson, see Michael Whitmer, Adrian Peterson booked and released from jail, Boston Globe (Sept. 12, 2014), (recounting Peterson’s son’s claim that Peterson had “hit him with a tree branch”); see also Associated Press, Greg Hardy has domestic violence charges dismissed before trial, USA Today  (Feb. 9, 2015), (recounting Hardy’s accuser’s testimony that he threw her onto “a futon filled with guns” and “placed his hands on her throat” as he threatened to kill her).

[3] See Karisa Maxwell, A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the NFL Personal Conduct Policy, Vice (Dec. 8, 2015), (noting that Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson incidents led NFL to decide that “it was time to revamp its personal conduct policy” and that “the policy’s fundamental shortcomings were made evident” when Ray Rice initially received only two-game suspension for his actions).

[4] Travis Waldron, The NFL’s Domestic Violence Policy Isn’t Working Because It Wasn’t Designed To, Huffington Post (Oct. 21, 2016),

[5] See Rachel Axon, Domestic violence red flags are easy to find in coaches’ pasts, but did NFL teams spot them?, USA Today (Sept. 23, 2019), (describing past domestic violence incidents involving Rick Slate of Oakland Raiders, Paul Spicer of Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mark Collins of Jacksonville Jaguars, and Skyler Fulton of Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

[6] See Axon, supra note 5 (“But NFL coaches have not faced the same pre-employment scrutiny as players, a USA TODAY examination found, giving credence to critics who say the NFL’s efforts on domestic violence are little more than a public relations campaign.”).

[7] See Louis Bien, A complete timeline of the Ray Rice assault case, SB NATION (Nov. 28, 2014), (narrating Rice’s initial act of violence against Janay Palmer and events that followed).

[8] See Bien, supra note 7 (noting that Rice was suspended for two games on July 24, 2014).

[9] See id. (quoting Commissioner Goodell as saying that he “didn’t get [Rice’s punishment] right” and stating that he “beefed up” NFL Personal Conduct Policy in response). The Personal Conduct Policy provided, in relevant part, that players found to have engaged in “[a]ctual or threatened physical violence against another person, including dating violence [or] domestic violence […]” will be subject to discipline, “even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction.” See Personal Conduct Policy: League Policies for Players, NFL (2016), (last visited Oct. 31, 2019) (explaining new policy instituted for NFL).

[10] See id. (noting that TMZ released video of assault on November 8, 2014).

[11] See Ian Rapoport, Ray Rice speaks on Kareem Hunt, reflects on own actions, NFL NETWORK INSIDER (Dec. 2, 2018), (describing Rice’s punishment in wake of TMZ video showing his assault of Janay Palmer).

[12] See Maxwell, supra note 3 (“Goodell's double suspension of Rice—punishing him twice for the same infraction—violated the NFL and NFL Players Association's Collective Bargaining Agreement, giving the NFLPA no choice but to file an appeal in defense of the running back.”); see also Rapoport, supra  note 11 (stating that Rice never played again following his initial indefinite suspension).

[13] See Maxwell, supra note 3 (describing weaknesses in Personal Conduct Policy after its update in 2007).

[14] See id. (describing changes embodied in new Personal Conduct Policy).

[15] Personal Conduct Policy, supra note 9.

[16] Id.

[17] For a further discussion of players who have recently faced consequences under the Personal Conduct Policy for committing violence against women, see infra notes 18-19 and accompanying text.

[18] See Jeremy Bergman, Patriots release WR Antonio Brown amid allegations, NFL (Sept. 20, 2019), (noting that Brown was member of Patriots for less than two weeks and for only one game before being released amidst allegations of sexual assault).  Brown’s release followed a string of allegedly threatening text messages he sent to his accuser; these texts violated the Personal Conduct Policy’s prohibition against “stalking, harassment, or similar forms of intimidation” and also “enraged” Patriots owner Robert Kraft, ironically himself the subject of a criminal investigation into sexual misconduct.  See Mark Maske and Adam Kilgore, How Antonio Brown’s deal with the Patriots dissolved in a matter of days, Washington Post (Sept. 21, 2019), (describing Patriots’ release of Brown following threatening text messages sent to his accuser).  See also Ebony Bowden, Antonio Brown glued to Twitter after being sacked by Patriots, New York Post (Sept. 22, 2019), (noting that that Patriots owner Robert Kraft was “enraged” by Brown’s text messages).

[19] See Mike Jones, Why does it take a video to move NFL to action on assaults of women?, USA Today (Nov. 30, 2018), (recounting that Hunt was released by Chiefs in response to video showing him “attacking, shoving, and kicking a woman”).

[20] See Axon, supra note 5 (stating that NFL prospects are subject to background check after being invited to league’s annual draft).

[21] For a further discussion of how coaches and other NFL personnel have been spared from accountability for past acts of violence against women, see infra notes 22-31 and accompanying text.

[22] See Jarrett Bell, Opinion: Robert Kraft’s case is yet another morality check for NFL owners, Roger Goodell, USA Today (Mar. 23, 2019), (describing charges against Robert Kraft).

[23] See Scott Davis, Robert Kraft would likely receive the maximum penalty from the NFL if found guilty soliciting a prostitute, but there is only so much they can do, BUSINESS INSIDER (Feb. 25, 2019), (“[I]f Kraft is found guilty, the NFL may fine and suspend him, both to the maximum limits of what's allowable by the league, to send a message.”).

[24] See Personal Conduct Policy, supra note 9 (providing that “[p]layers convicted of a crime or subject to a disposition of a criminal proceeding (as defined in this Policy) are subject to discipline [...] [b]ut even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, players found to have engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline” and listing conduct that may be punished even in absence of criminal conviction); see also, e.g., Mark Maske, NFL will consider placing Antonio Brown on paid leave and making him ineligible to play, WASHINGTON POST (Sept. 11, 2019), (contemplating how NFL might punish Antonio Brown despite fact that he had not yet been charged with crime).

[25] See Jerry Barca, Ezekiel Elliott Suspended For Six Games, Forbes (Aug. 11, 2017), (recounting that Elliott was suspended for six games following allegations of domestic violence in July 2016, though authorities did not press charges); Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, Roethlisberger suspended by NFL, ESPN (Apr. 21, 2010), (noting that Roethlisberger was suspended for six games following allegation of sexual assault and stating that “Roethlisberger is the first player suspended by Goodell under the conduct policy who hasn’t been arrested or charged with a crime”); Michael McCann, Five Key Legal Points Surrounding Kareem Hunt, Sports Illustrated (Nov. 30, 2018), (describing how NFL placed Kareem Hunt on Commissioner’s Exempt list but noting that he was not yet facing criminal or civil charges).

[26] See Axon, supra note 5 (describing past domestic violence incidents involving Rick Slate of Oakland Raiders, Paul Spicer of Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mark Collins of Jacksonville Jaguars, and Skyler Fulton of Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

[27] See id. (recounting Rick Slate’s domestic violence history).

[28] See Ryan Kolakowski, Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches faced allegations of violence against women, TAMPA BAY TIMES (Sept. 19, 2019), (noting claims against Paul Spicer and Skyler Fulton unearthed in USA Today investigation).

[29] See id. (describing circumstances surrounding Fulton’s previous arrest).

[30] See id. (describing circumstances leading to orders of protection against Spicer).

[31] See id. (noting that Spicer and Fulton both left team following Dirk Koetter’s departure, and stating that Spicer is currently defensive line coach at USF, while Fulton coaches wide receivers at Portland State).

[32] See Axon, supra note 5 (describing circumstances surrounding restraining order filed against Mark Collins).

[33] See id. (noting that charges against Rick Slate were dropped, both orders of protection against Paul Spicer were dismissed, and order of protection against Mark Collins was withdrawn);  see also Kolakowski, supra note 28 (noting that charges against Skyler Fulton were dismissed after he completed pretrial diversion program).

[34] See Axon, supra note 5 (“The effort- which was much less comprehensive than the robust investigations that NFL and team officials boast about deploying on their players- revealed red flags in the history of Fulton and three other coaches.”).

[35] See id. (paraphrasing NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy in saying that “the NFL does not get involved in vetting coaches” and thus putting onus on teams).

[36] See Axon, supra note 5 (“But NFL coaches have not faced the same pre-employment scrutiny as players, a USA TODAY examination found, giving credence to critics who say the NFL’s efforts on domestic violence are little more than a public relations campaign.”).